A Noble Calling
Many Canadians don’t realize the sacrifices made by volunteer firefighters. Though they put in volunteer hours, the job is a fulltime commitment. They wouldn’t want it any other way
By Rachel Debling
LOCAL 920 MEMBER ALEX MAKITALO remembers the exact moment he wanted to be a volunteer firefighter.
“When I was six years old, my family’s car was hit by a drunk driver,” says Alex. “It was volunteer firefighters who pulled my family out of the wreck.
“From that point on, I loved volunteer firefighters. My mother would bring me to the fire hall to visit them.”
Alex was inspired. Years later, as an adult, he threw his hat in the ring and became a volunteer. The Local 920 member has been a proud firefighter with the City of Greater Sudbury’s Station 18 for eight years, in addition to his full-time job as a roofer.
Volunteer firefighters are drawn to the profession for a variety of reasons. For Alex, the motivation was extremely personal. For Local 911 member Paul Osborne, a volunteer captain with nearly 20 years of firefighting experience with the City of Hamilton, Ontario, he initially wanted to become a full-time firefighter, but the timing wasn’t right.
“It would have required a lifestyle change that was just not feasible at that point, so I chose to do the volunteer thing,” he says. “Above all, I wanted to give back to my community. That’s why 99.9 percent of people decide to do it.”
For his day job, Paul recently left his position at the maintenance facility for Hamilton Street Railway, the city’s public transit agency, for a role at the Toronto Transit Commission. He’s a busy man, to say the least.
THE TITLE VOLUNTEER FIREFIGHTER CAN be misleading. Volunteer implies that these first responders punch in and punch out whenever they like, whenever the mood hits them.
In reality, volunteer firefighters are on call 24/7, 365 days per year. They take an oath to help their community no matter the time of day, and they put their lives on the line to the same degree as their full-time comrades.
James MacLeod, another Local 911 member, had extensive experience working with firefighters, police, and paramedics before he joined Hamilton’s fire department. During his time as a compliance and training manager with First Response Environmental, he trained first responders across the province for 25 years.
“The expectation from the chief and from the city is that volunteers are able to perform the same role as full-time firefighters,” says James. “The only difference is that the training on the volunteer side is designed to accommodate a full-time working schedule. The same information is provided but is compressed due to time constraints.”
The training offered by the City of Greater Sudbury is one of the highlights of being a volunteer firefighter for Local 920 member Elissa Bertuzzi.
“After you pass the testing stage, you receive your pager and you’re officially a probationary volunteer firefighter,” she says. “Once you’re hired, they offer many different types of training per year. You don’t have to attend all of them, but I like to take most of them, because I can’t get enough of it.”
When she’s not fighting fires out of Sudbury’s Station 6, Elissa is a geographic information systems technician with the Ministry of Energy, Northern Development, and Mines.
The varied careers of these CLAC members provide just a small sample of how volunteers earn a living outside of their stations. People from all walks of life answer the call to protect their fellow citizens—and learn a lot about their communities and the demands of the profession in the process.
How firefighters are represented in the mainstream media often is far from accurate, as Elissa found out early in her three years on the force.
“One call I’ve never responded to is a cat in a tree,” she jokes. “Going into it, I thought we would get those calls, but I have yet to see it.”
Another issue is diversity. Though there aren’t many women on Elissa’s team, the number is steadily growing. Elissa recognizes the value of having a female perspective in a fire department.
“I’m not going to lie, being a female firefighter is pretty cool,” she says. “Women can bring a more emotional and nurturing approach to calls. Plus, because I’m smaller, I can squeeze through windows and into areas a lot of the larger firefighters can’t.”
ON A CITY LEVEL, ONE OF the benefits of staffing volunteer firefighters is the cost savings to taxpayers, as volunteers are only paid for the time that they work.
“Adding more full-time firefighters to Hamilton’s roster would raise property taxes quite a bit,” says Paul.
Union representation is also important to ensure that stations spread out across a vast area can have a touchpoint and a voice when dealing with the city they work for.
“I think that, since we have so many stations, there’s a bit of a disconnect,” says James, who also serves as a member of the Local 911 Board. “CLAC aligns us and improves communication between the stations, especially when it comes to fundraising efforts. If there are 300 people focussed on a fundraising event, it’s likely going to be more successful than if there are only 25.”
Volunteer firefighters sometimes work hand in hand with full-time, or career, firefighters in what are known as composite stations. That means a staff of full-timers are supported by a team of on-call volunteers.
Though the standards vary in each city, region, or province, many departments opt for volunteer firefighters over full-time. The National Fire Protection Association estimates that of the more than 150,000 firefighters in the country, more than 80 percent are volunteer.
Rural regions and large municipalities can especially benefit from the wide reach that volunteers offer, since they respond to calls from their home or current location, not a station.
“I think the volunteer model works really well for Hamilton,” says Paul. “We’re a composite department. We get the same training in the same facility with the full-timers.”
In the City of Greater Sudbury, for example, recruits are required to complete a 40-hour course to become a volunteer firefighter. This is on top of ongoing training such as first aid, and in addition to one’s full-time job and family obligations. It can be a lot, but for the right candidates, it’s worth it.
INTERESTED IN BECOMING A VOLUNTEER FIREFIGHTER?
It takes a special kind of person to thrive in this high-stakes sector.
“You can’t be edgy under stress,” says Paul. “People are comforted when you walk into a situation. If you’re freaking out, they will freak out, so you need to stay cool, calm, and collected.”
James agrees. “Whether you’re a career or volunteer firefighter, you have to have a pretty strong work ethic. You also have to be incredibly community-minded and possess the will to help people.
“To anybody who’s tossing around the idea of becoming a volunteer firefighter, I would tell them that it’s not as hard as you think. And if it does become hard, you have a whole team of people who are going to help you through it.”
Being a volunteer firefighter also requires a delicate balance dealing with full-time employment and firefighter duties.
“Volunteer firefighters must let their employer know about their responsibilities and come to an agreement about scheduling,” says Alex. “If that pager goes off, most firefighters want to respond, depending on what it is and where they are in the city. A call could be an hour or two, or it could be the whole day.”
Alex was surprised to find just how passionate his fellow firefighters are when a call comes through—pages are usually answered quickly. And though volunteers are on-call all the time, there is one notable, and potentially obvious, stipulation.
“It’s 24 hours a day—unless you are intoxicated,” says Alex.
The personal toll it takes can be difficult too, especially for the family of a volunteer firefighter.
“When you’re opening presents on Christmas morning and you get a call, you have to explain to your children why you’re leaving,” says Paul. “That can be tough.”
If you think you have what it takes to be a volunteer firefighter, there’s no time like the present to reach out to your city to learn about the steps involved. The teamwork and camaraderie that come with being a volunteer firefighter are second to none.
“Anyone willing to take it on loves the job,” says Alex. “They’re happy to do any hours that it takes or any extra work it might ask.”
Serving your community and neighbours—and possibly saving a life—definitely makes being a volunteer firefighter a noble calling.
RIDING TO REMEMBER
One element of volunteer firefighting that is important to all who answer the call is recognizing the sacrifice of those who have died in the line of duty. The Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation (CFFF) hosts events throughout the year to raise money and awareness for this worthwhile cause, including an Honour the Fallen bike ride.
Local 911 members have taken part in the ride for the past five years. Participants clock hundreds of kilometres and raise tens of thousands of dollars during the September event.
The Honour the Fallen route can vary but in previous years it has brought participants from Hamilton, Ontario, all the way to Ottawa. The end of the ride coincides with the CFFF’s memorial ceremony in the nation’s capital.
“Cycling is all about personal sacrifice,” says Local 911 member James MacLeod. “We ride for 200 kilometres over three days to pay honour to the firefighters who gave their life to their communities.”
Though the event was cancelled in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a smaller ride was organized from Oakville to Toronto.
“Last year, since we couldn’t ride, we did some smaller fundraising events instead,” says Local 911 member and volunteer captain Paul Osborne.
Unfortunately, the 2021 ride also has been postponed due to the pandemic. On the bright side, Local 911 members are planning a three-day ride from Hamilton to Ottawa on September 8 in lieu.
A MILESTONE FOR BELLEVILLE
On June 28, the City of Belleville, Ontario, welcomed its first female fire chief, Monique Belair.
Monique will be working with Local 920 members within Belleville’s fire department and brings with her more than 30 years of firefighting experience.
She started her career with the Canadian Armed Forces where she was one of only a few female firefighters. Since then, she has taken on numerous fire department roles, working in communication, education, training, and investigation.
Prior to coming to Belleville, she was the deputy fire chief of the City of St. Catharines and the town of Oakville, Ontario.
SPAGHETTI FOR PAUL
It may be a media-favourite stereotype, but it does happen, although rarely. Earlier this year in March, firefighters in Pensacola, Florida, rescued a cat stuck in a tree for over a week. The orange tabby didn’t make it easy for firefighters, continually moving out of reach as they approached. On the third attempt, they got the ladder high enough and made the rescue. Once on the ground, the cat enjoyed some water and snacked on spaghetti. It was later released to animal control and named Paul after the firefighter who rescued it.
DID YOU KNOW?
There’s a piece of volunteer firefighting information that some Canadians may not be aware of but should be. If you see a car with flashing green lights, pull over—that’s a volunteer firefighter on their way to a call.